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Reviewed by:
  • Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present by Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail
  • Richard Blundell
Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present. By Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 360 pp. $29.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper and e-book).

This book is an ambitious project to articulate a collection of novel conceptual mechanisms for describing, interpreting, and understanding [End Page 953] deep human history. Andrew Shryock is an anthropologist at the University of Michigan who specializes in Middle Eastern oral and textual histories and genealogical politics, while Daniel Smail is a historian at Harvard University who is known for his explorations of deep time histories and their linkages to brain-body systems and endocrinal evolution. For this volume they have assembled a panel of eleven academics from anthropology, history, geography, linguistics, biology, and archeology to explore the complexities of deep historiography. As a collaborative effort, this work is exemplary of the powerful synergies that can result from interdisciplinary scholarship.

The editors describe this project as growing out of their “discomfort” with the trend of narrowing chronological focus in historiographical research while, simultaneously, the scientific knowledge of human prehistory has been expanding dramatically. In the twenty-page introduction, the authors succinctly describe their rationale for challenging the prevailing, chronologically constrained, models in which most historians have been trained to work in isolation from natural history. They implicate a well-trodden legacy of religious ideology as a primary cause of this limitation (although philosophers such as Hegel and Marx feature prominently as well) and acknowledge the profound error in the Augustinian habit of cloaking prehuman history in religious mythos. Dismissing natural history from human history, Shryock and Smail assert, “leaves no room for contingency, no room for change, no way to understand the path-dependent nature of variation within systems” (p. 12). For them, this means that cosmologies that exclude natural history from human history create, in effect, ahistorical worldviews that render deeper self-reflection out of range. This creates an academic situation wherein historical scholarship, it turns out, remains one of the last bastions of the human-nature dichotomy.

The argument that follows from this dilemma is one that promotes a broadening of deeper historical inquiry so that long-obscured insights can become visible to historians. The goal of this book, then, is to help scholars overcome some of their training-ensconced reluctance to delve deeper into time. They encourage historians to investigate beyond the sole realm of written primary sources in order to bring new and deeper insights to bear on the human past. Academically speaking, this is tenuous territory, and the authors seem to acknowledge this when they hedge that “If this volume may lay claim to any innovation, it will not lie in matters of theory or method but in the realm of imagination” (p. 15).

What they collectively “imagine” with is “a set of tools—patterns, frames, metaphors—for the telling of deep histories” (p. xi) that should [End Page 954] effectively replace outmoded narratives such as genesis, ontogeny, and original sin. With an impressive depth of thought and creativity and high-quality writing, they set out to cultivate a required “shift in sensibilities” that is then sustained throughout the book. The tools they develop are a series of new “orientations and base metaphors” (p. 15) that include concepts such as kinship, exchange, extension, hospitality, and genealogy that they believe will help ease the required transition to deep history thinking. Each of the eight chapters that follow focus on specific areas of study: the human body, energy and ecosystems, language, food, kinship, migration, goods, and scale, in which they illustrate how these mechanisms can be of use to historians in interpreting and understanding across vaster timescales.

For example, one of the most cited concepts they offer is kinship. Grossly simplified, kinship refers to the constellation of ideas, habits, and behaviors that, along with their resultant social patterns and structures, tie us to each other and persist through evolutionary time. While historians may already be comfortable with a “short chronology” history that could trace an idea like kinship through written primary sources, in Medieval times, for...


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